Conversion standards in Pittsburgh
Local rabbis require serious study, immersive participation in congregational life and commitment to live Jewishly
Long gone are the days of rabbis rebuffing potential converts three times so they can demonstrate their determination to become Jewish, at least in the non-Orthodox world.
But that doesn’t mean that conversion is an easy process, as local rabbis consistently require serious study, immersive participation in congregational life and a commitment to live Jewishly.
Area Reform rabbis share the responsibility of teaching prospective converts at a weekly Introduction to Judaism class that extends over the course of six to eight months. The class, which has been going strong for more than three decades, alternates meeting at Temple Sinai and Rodef Shalom Congregation and includes sections on Jewish thought, the holidays, Biblical text, Talmud and Israel, as well as the issue of the acceptance of converts in American Jewish life, according to Rabbi Jamie Gibson, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai.
Each iteration of the class generally has a cohort of between 25 and 40 people, who also regularly meet individually with their sponsoring rabbi. Gibson meets with his students privately every three to four weeks and also has small group meetings with those people connected with Temple Sinai who are working toward conversion.
“So, the idea is that between those three circles of contact there is plenty of time to transmit information and for students to ask questions and process all this information we’re giving them,” Gibson said.
But the process of becoming a Jew extends beyond learning material, Gibson emphasized.
“It’s about becoming part of the community,” he said. “So, I ask people to clear their schedules and to come to six to eight services, Shabbatot, in a row, so they not only understand our melodies, but they also understand the rhythm and sensibility of the congregation that they hope to join.”
Gibson has additional required readings for his students, and although the Introduction to Judaism class does not cover Hebrew, he encourages his students to have a rudimentary knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet, enough to at least be able to write the letters and to read brachot in Hebrew rather than transliteration.
“At the end of the process, when the student feels that he or she is ready, and I feel they are ready, I give them a significant project to do, which not only asks them to share the kind of cognitive knowledge they’ve acquired about holidays and sources and things like that, but really much more,” Gibson said. “I have three substantial essay questions where they really can open their wings and fly a little bit with their own thoughts — whether it is about Shabbat, the Holocaust or the personal experience of transformation and conversion.”
Gibson then assembles a beit din consisting of three rabbis and also requires his converts to be immersed in the mikvah. If the candidate for conversion is male, and has already been circumcised, he is required to undergo hatafat dam brit, which is the letting of a drop of blood. If someone has not been circumcised, the full procedure is explored.
For most people, the entire process takes between a year and a year and a half, Gibson said.
Beit din, mikvah and hatafat dam brit are common requirements for conversion among Pittsburgh’s non-Orthodox rabbis, although other requirements vary.
Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom, also meets with his candidates on an individual basis and requires a personal essay at the completion of their coursework. And while he encourages his candidates to come to services, he has no specific attendance requirement. He does not require his students to become versed in Hebrew, although he does expose them to the language.
Bisno’s candidates for conversion generally can complete their preparation in about a year, he said, although if a person is already a member of a Jewish family, sometimes the process does not take that long.
Rabbi Seth Adelson, senior rabbi at the Conservative Beth Shalom, said his candidates for conversion can generally complete their requirements in about eight months. Adelson teaches a course along with Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, for those candidates wishing a Conservative conversion.
The class “covers all the basic knowledge that you need to be a knowledgeable, practicing, Conservative Jew, including a requirement for learning to read Hebrew and a familiarity with basic principles, including Jewish law, holidays, exposure to Jewish practice, a requirement to attend synagogue, kashrut and Shabbat,” he said. In addition to Adelson and Greenbaum, the students are occasionally taught by guest speakers. Adelson’s students meet with him individually a few times over the course of the six-month class, he said.
He requires Hebrew, with the goal of having his candidates “able to at least try to manage the siddur,” he said. Although he tells his candidates that he hopes to see them in synagogue, he does not take attendance.
Adelson requires a personal essay at the conclusion of his students’ studies and also requires them to take a written test “to demonstrate competency.”
Rabbi Barbara Symons, spiritual leader of Temple David, requires her students to take the class offered by the area Reform rabbis, and she also participates in teaching that class.
“I try to require someone to take that class because they get different perspectives, because of the different rabbis and cantors teaching,” she said. She also meets individually with her students and encourages them to get involved in the congregation.
She sees Hebrew “as a tool to be involved in Jewish life and community life,” she said, and wants her students to be able to gain enough competency in the language to read the Shema and the V’ahavta and the blessings for conversion.
After a candidate has been questioned by the beit din and has immersed in the mikvah, Symons and her congregation celebrate the new member of the community at the Shabbat service immediately following the conversion. When the new convert ascends the bima and holds the Torah, the joy and pride is shared by everyone present, Symons said.
“Every single time, it’s breathtaking and empowering,” she said. “It’s remarkable to look at the community’s faces.”
The time it takes to convert, Symons said, differs for each person, but typically extends between one and two years. For people who are already in a Jewish family, it can take less than a year.
Symons asks her students to be involved in the “three pillars” of Judaism: prayer, study and social justice, and she always asks them “what’s next?” following the conclusion of the conversion process.
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, spiritual leader of New Light, which self-identifies as a Conservative congregation, has been doing conversions for 25 years, but has only had a few candidates since he took his pulpit in Pittsburgh in 2010.
Right now, he is working with one candidate, but does not participate in the Conservative conversion class team-taught by Adelson and Greenbaum.
“I believe the conversion process is creating a relationship with the rabbi who will be your mentor for the year,” Perlman said, adding that he used to do joint classes, but found them “unsatisfying,” preventing him from “getting to know the students, and my students didn’t get to know their rabbi. And I would not participate in a joint community group because different rabbis have their own standards.”
Perlman requires his candidates to study for 12 months prior to conversion.
“I want them to experience all the festivals, to begin to lead a Jewish life and to begin to take on a Jewish lifestyle,” he said. “I want their full participation in the congregation.”
While he does not have a specific synagogue attendance requirement, he tells his candidates that he would “like them to come regularly and to be there for the festivals.”
Perlman is also honest with his students about their status in the wider Jewish community with a Conservative conversion.
“I’m clear with my students that this is a Conservative conversion, and if you make aliya, your identity might be challenged,” he said. “People may not see you as a Jew. It’s good in Conservative synagogues, and maybe in Reform synagogues and some Orthodox. But I’m realistic with them in terms of what to expect,” he said.
Temple Sinai’s Gibson is also up front with his students about the status of a Reform conversion.
“I let all conversion candidates know that their conversions will be accepted by the Reform movement, the Reconstructionist movement and a broad section of the Conservative movement, but will never be accepted in the Orthodox movement,” he said. “This has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the fact that they don’t accept me as a rabbi who has authority to change anyone’s personal status.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at